2 March 2013

Brutal Fertility

© Brandon Joel Queen, 2013
     The Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte del Recinto de Río Piedras, Universidad de Puerto Rico is hosting the first half of a two-part exhibition of landscapes, in painting and other media (the second stage of the show will be at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico beginning 6 March).  Entitled feroz/feraz (brutal/fertile), the exhibit   is really a survey of Puerto Rican artists' changing view of their environment throughout the nation's history. You could also call it a who's-who of Puerto Rican art history, as all the greats are there: Francisco Oller, Ramón Frade, Rafael Tufiño. Of course, this could also simply mean that Puerto Rican artists have a special relationship with their surroundings, as every artist of note in the canon (and many not in the canon) have dealt with the subject of landscape, and in very interesting ways. 

But I digress.

The exhibit begins with the traditional greats mentioned above and their early Modernist takes on the island's landscapes and then traces the development of the genre and subject up to the present day. While many of the pieces were quite notable for their use of colour and painterly gusto, three in particular stood out for me.

The first, Relatos de un paisaje asesinado, was a mixed media piece by Wilfredo Chiesa. Including poetry from Tomás López Ramírez and music from renowned composer Rafael Aponte Ledeé, this mix of serigraphy, intaglio and collage techniques was originally a book made in 1976. Displayed as five length-wise panels with music emanating from the ceiling, it draws you in out of curiosity and you end up staying for a poetic revelation. What's the revelation? Nothing less than re-connecting with an environment in ruins through the eternal medium of art well-made. These three artists offer up their work - and encourage others - to reconstruct the magic of our lost relationship with nature by making art. In other words: in the midst of destruction, heal yourself with an act of creation.

The second piece that stood out was a small painting by Spanish artist José María Iranzo. Entitled La Envidia, it's a priori another nature scene with a lot of green, but the intensity of the brush strokes and striking contrast of black plant silhouettes against the green-yellow background start toying with your mind soon enough. What makes this work stand out - especially among the others in the oh-don't-we-hate-nature section - is Iranzo's take on the alienation from nature that curator Lilliana Ramos Collado mentions in her introduction to the exhibit. The plants (or rather their silhouettes) appear menacing against the cheerful background, even more so when you consider they are all painted with sharp edges, all suggesting the texture of thorns and needles; none of them are the kinds of things you would include in a bouquet unless you're a member of the Addams family. 

The final work that caught my attention was a rather bubbly painting by Carmelo Sobrino, one of my new favourite artists. The cheerful pastel colours that are combined using techniques from pointillism and Impressionism - with a dash of De Stijl and Cubism - saturate the canvas and, with the title Atlántico, evokes images of the beach and its ocean horizon. The caveat comes when you realise you're at the end of the exhibit, where nature takes on a menacing aspect; suddenly the cheery abundance of this beach scene becomes an overpopulated mess threatening a pristine ecosystem. It is perhaps for this reason that this one was my favourite. As so often occurs in contemporary life, we are confronted with the painful reality that underlies our good time and care-free attitude. At first the painting makes you smile, but the smile either fades or becomes nervous. And the painting is still beautiful to look at.

So that was a taste of the "brutal fertility" Dr. Ramos Collado has put together for us. There were other great works and if you're on the campus of the university for the next couple of weeks, it's worth the time to check this exhibit out. (There's even a great little food court with some of the best sandwiches you'll ever eat in your life nearby. Make a day of it.)

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